Processed meat can cause cancer, red meat probably can – WHO

Eating processed meat can lead to bowel cancer in humans and red meat is a likely cause of the disease, the World Health Organization (WHO) says.

LYON, FRANCE (OCTOBER 26, 2015) (REUTERS) – Eating processed meat can lead to bowel cancer in humans while red meat is a likely cause of the disease, World Health Organization (WHO) experts said on Monday (October 26) in findings that could sharpen debate over the merits of a meat-based diet.

The France-based International Agency for Research on Cancer (IARC), part of the WHO, put processed meat such as hot dogs and ham in its group 1 list, which already includes tobacco, asbestos and diesel fumes, for which there is “sufficient evidence” of cancer links.

“The IARC (International Agency for the Research on Cancer) working group concluded that processed meat and that is the consumption of processed meat is carcinogenic to humans and that the consumption of red meat is probably carcinogenic to humans. These findings reinforce existing dietary guidelines from a number of health authorities, including the World Health Organization, that is that people who eat meat should consider reducing their consumption to reduce their risks of several diseases, including cancer,” Dr. Dana Loomis of the IARC told Reuters Television.

Red meat, under which the IARC includes beef, lamb and pork, was classified as a “probable” carcinogen in its group 2A list that also contains glyphosate, the active ingredient in many weedkillers.

The lower classification for red meat reflected “limited evidence” that it causes cancer. The IARC found links mainly with bowel cancer, as was the case for processed meat, but it also observed associations with pancreatic and prostate cancer.

The agency, whose findings on meat followed a meeting of health experts in France earlier this month, estimated each 50 grams (or slightly less than 2 ounces) of processed meat eaten daily increases the risk of colorectal cancer by 18 percent.

Loomis said it’s important to note that the category a certain substance is placed in does not necessarily correspond to the level of risk, but rather the strength of research backing the claim of a risk existing.

“Processed meat has been classified as carcinogenic along with other well-known substances, including tobacco smoking, and asbestos, even air pollution, but it’s important to recognize that those classifications relate to the strength of scientific evidence for carcinogenicity and not to the level of risk. So even though they are all on the same category, the level of risks for tobacco smoking is much larger than the risk associated with eating meat, ten times larger than the risk for processed meat, for example,” he said.

The preparation of the IARC’s report has already prompted vigourous reactions from meat industry groups, which argue meat forms part of a balanced diet and that cancer risk assessments need to be set in a broader context of environmental and lifestyle factors.

The IARC, which does not make specific policy recommendations, cited an estimate from the Global Burden of Disease Project – an international consortium of more than 1,000 researchers – that 34,000 cancer deaths per year worldwide are attributable to diets high in processed meat.

This compares with about 1 million cancer deaths per year globally due to tobacco smoking, 600,000 a year due to alcohol consumption, and more than 200,000 each year due to air pollution, it said.

If the cancer link with red meat were confirmed, diets rich in red meat could be responsible for 50,000 deaths a year worldwide, according to the Global Burden of Disease Project.